Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Cochineal Dye Day

When folks see my dark burgundy red-colored yarn, they want to know what I used to dye it. They are then usually surprised when I tell them that the dye material is bugs. But that's really what cochineal is. Cochineal are scale insects that feed upon the prickly pear cactus fruit, which is dark pink. They are collected by hand and dried, and then sold in the form you see below:

Dried cochineal insects

To make the dye, I boil the bug bodies in several changes of water and strain them out. Once they're boiled, they look like so:

The resulting dye bath is dark red. I should be getting a true red from my cochineal when I use the alum mordant, and I'm not totally sure why mine comes out like raspberry sorbet. I'm guessing it must be our water. With its pH, I would expect to get a true red, but there are likely dissolved minerals, which may alter the outcome. One of these days, I'll try it with distilled water or rainwater, and see if I get different results. I have also seen instructions that recommend grinding the cochineal before extraction. I wonder if this would yield more red? I'm not really disappointed though, because this shade of purple-red-raspberry is one of my favorites. 

Cochineal-dyed fingering-weight yarn

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Stinging Nettle Pesto

Tonight's dinner: Cabbage noodles with stinging nettle pesto, miner's lettuce salad with lemon-mustard viniagrette, and grilled grass-fed local beef with lime garlic rub...mmmmm.

About a year and a half ago, I embarked on a new food journey. I wasn't happy with my health or weight, and someone recommended the blog of Maria Emmerich, called Keto Adapted. I did some reading, and was very intrigued with her perspective, and the results her clients claimed. So I dove in, headlong.

The basic idea is to eat a high fat, moderate protein, and low-carb diet, and this is supposed to put your body in nutritional ketosis, a state where your body burns fat for energy instead of carbs. Maria's blog is full of delicious and delightful dishes, as well as keto-adapted takes on standards, such as stroganoff, or granola. It has totally changed the way I eat, and in general, I feel a lot better than I did when I began, and I lost about 15 pounds to boot. I've since then also explored the Paleo philosophy, and found a lot of really interesting reading about how humans are meant to eat and live.

Recently, my daughter Ella has become fascinated with natural history and indigenous living traditions. She is curious about edible plants and mushrooms, and interested in how to build her own bow, wants to hunt animals with snares, make fire with a hand drill, and build debris huts and live in the woods with only a knife and a pot. Drew and I are so thrilled with this development, because we are both very interested in the same skills, and have each, on our own terms, spent time in our lives studying the natural world.

Last year, Drew carved a trail through our unique and unusual swamp, that lies down the hill from the yurt. Before then, this area was impenetrable. Now, there's a quite pleasant little walk one can take, even with the kids. Yesterday, Drew and Ella did some woods clean up on part of this walk, and created the beginnings of a little wilderness camp, where Ella is planning to carry out her survivalist experience. Today, she wanted to go back down there to work on fire drills, and also harvest wild edibles. I'm always into that idea.

We collected cattails tubers and stems from the marsh (Typha latifolia), though I'm actually quite inexperienced in how to make use of this plant. We then collected a large bunch of stinging nettles (Urtica dioica), and some miner's lettuce (Claytonia perfoliata) to use in our dinner. I also collected some chickweed (Stellaria media) because I wanted Ella to know the plant. While we were doing our walkabout, we managed to sneak up on some deer, who didn't notice us for a while, until our little dog dashed across the meadow!

Once home, I steamed the nettles to prepare my nettle pesto, and cleaned the miner's lettuce and added some sliced avocado for a salad. I cooked up some home-grown cabbage "noodles" for my low carb noodle portion (Drew and the kids had regular noodles), made some dressing, and we grilled some grass-fed T-bone steak that was grown across the creek on our neighbor's land. Now that's "paleo".

Stinging Nettle Pesto Recipe
~ 4 cups, loosely packed, nettle leaves, steamed
2 cloves garlic
2 cups walnuts
generous salt
olive oil

Mill the walnuts, garlic, and salt in the food processor until the walnuts form almost a paste. Add the steamed nettles, and pulse until well mixed. Add olive oil to create your desired pesto consistency. Add to the pasta of your choice and enjoy.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Straw Bale Garden Continued

Today is day 8 of the bale conditioning process. I've been adding feather meal every other day for the first week, and then every day for the last two. They are damp, and sprouting their residual wheat seeds, and they stink like the feather meal. I installed the t-posts today, and two runs of wire, so we can put the mini greenhouse on once plants are in there.

We got a whole new pile of bales for the next round, too, and are deciding where to place them, and in what position. Even though it's going to be temporary, it's still difficult to decide. I want the yard to feel welcoming, and not cramped. I want the kids to have space to play, and yet still have the garden in our midst, AND have the layout naturally help shelter the other beds from the ubiquitous summer wind. In fact, we're having our first wind event today. It's blowing like it's summer out there, reminding me of how much that element affects our every design decision. Drew and I talked yesterday about planting a couple of rows of corn on the terrace above our yard, to help create a windbreak for the garden AND for our own experience of being outdoors. Our wind is so drastic that when it's happening, we can't really enjoy being outside.

Anyhow, if all goes well, we should be able to plant seeds into this first row of bales next week. We also planted our tomato, pepper, and eggplant plants. We also are waiting on germination of most of the brassicas, besides the bok choi, which is never worried about anything. Hopefully the broccoli and cauliflower and cabbage and such will catch up.

A Use for Scotch Broom

The stuff in the bucket is the scotch broom plant material after being cooked for dye, and the yarn above is the finished product.

Those of you who live close by know that we are slowly reclaiming our property from scotch broom (Cytisus scoparius), an invasive plant that inhabits the west. When we bought our 50 acres, maybe 20 of them were covered in various-aged stands of this woody perennial. It can be anywhere from 3-15 feet tall, and each individual plant produces maybe tens of thousands of beautiful, brilliant yellow blossoms during it's season in April-June. Each flower produces approximately 10 seeds that eject from their pea-shaped seed pods once they dry out at the end of the bloom. In June and July, when the bulk of them explode, it can sound like a fire is crackling in the stand near our house.

Although we are working each year to decrease the prevalence of this noxious plant, I have found a verifiable use for it: dye! Scotch broom is closely related to French broom, also called Dyer's broom (Genista tinctoria). I suspected I could get a dye, using the same instructions, and found that YES! I can! I collect branches during the height of the bloom and strip the blossoms off, and then dry them, and I can use them to create a pale, slightly green, yellow color for my yarn. Now that's local!

Yarn in front is first dyebath, yarn in back is second dye bath.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Great Backyard Bird Count Results

Over the weekend, I submitted three bird lists to the Great BackYard Bird Count. You sign up, and then do a minimum of 15 minutes of birding at an area of your choosing, and report the results. This is a worldwide event, and ordinary birders are all submitting data, in the interest of tracking bird presence and absence in a wide range of habitats. Here's a list of birds we found at our place on Saturday, Sunday, and Monday:

  • American Robin
  • Scrub Jay
  • Red-shafted Flicker (Northern Flicker)
  • Dark-eyed Junco
  • California Towhee
  • Black Phoebe
  • Red-shouldered Hawk
  • Stellar's Jay
  • Song Sparrow
  • Western Meadowlark
  • White-crowned Sparrow
  • Golden-crowned Sparrow
  • Turkey Vulture
  • Raven
  • Mourning Dove
  • Anna's Hummingbird
  • Ruby-crowned Kinglet
  • California Quail
  • Marsh Wren
  • Yellow-rumped Warbler
  • European Starling
  • Red-tail Hawk
  • Downy Woodpecker
  • Varied Thrush

I also saw a rabbit and a western gray squirrel.

On my Mill Creek hike with Ella, we saw or heard:

  • Pacific Wren
  • Chestnut-backed chickadee
  • Ruby-crowned kinglet
  • Red-shafted Flicker
  • Hermit Thrush
  • Pileated Woodpecker
  • Red-breasted Nuthatch
  • Varied Thrush
  • Raven

I believe you can view the GBBC data at the website, Great Backyard Bird Count. Check it out! You can explore results for any geographical area, though I find the Humboldt results to be most interesting.

Paying Forward Pays Dividends

Gardner drums on our giant head of winter cabbage.

Our winter garden didn't amount to much last year. We got everything in at the perfect moment, the plants did great, and then, the deer got into the garden a week later, and ate all the brussels sprouts, most of the broccoli, and half of the cauliflower, and then gophers consumed about half of the cabbage plants.

However, we still have some cabbage! These are an awesome winter cabbage called January King (from Territorial Seed Company). I love the winter garden for this reason. If you can thread the gauntlet of predators, storms, and frost, you come out in spring with fresh food, when nothing else is growing yet.

Here comes coleslaw!

Sunday, February 15, 2015

A Little Nature Walk

Today, Ella and I took part in the Great Back Yard Count, a bird-counting event that gathers bird data from all over the world for the same four days. We had a lot of fun on our all-day-long hike in Mill Creek Forest, and looking for birds in our yard. But before I even knew about this event, I went birding for the first time in forever yesterday, because my daughter was playing with a friend, and my son is away for the weekend with dad (yay DAD!). Here's what I wrote about my little walk:

Dropped right into owl eyes/deer ears meditation, immediately became very sensitive and seeing birds far away. First critter: red-shafted flicker at the top of a tree by the yurt, calling, another answers across the creek.

Moving on, moving slowly. Thought something moved in brush near spring trail. Couldn't decide which way to go, was called to marsh trail instead. Saw a bird dive at the entrance. Approached quietly. Noticed flying insects all over willow tree. Closer look revealed many small flies drinking nectar from new willow catkin flowers. A few varieties of flies. Who knew flies pollinated willows? Entered marsh trail. Pause. Sparrows in blackberry thicket by entrance, the one I saw before. Wait and observe. After a few minutes of stillness, they showed themselves to me, complaining: white-crowned sparrow. A pair. Waiting.

Suddenly, I see something. I turn slowly to look closer, a rabbit! Darting back and forth, as if it can't decide what to do! And then it dashes across the path ahead of me, down into the stinging nettle. Soon after, Poblano (my little dog) comes along sniffing excitedly. That rabbit gave him the slip! Smile and wait. Ahhh, this must be who is browsing on the marsh plants...many of them are clipped off, leaving a simple stem with no leaf.

I notice several cattail heads have their fluff all pulled apart (bird nest fluff?) Hear sparrow song up top, unknown species. Move a little farther in, and pause and wait. More sparrows. Watching a blackberry thicket. Wow, there's a bird moving in there, turn my head slowly, it's preening, maybe it doesn't see me, it looks sleepy, like it might just close its eyes and doze off. I am 4 feet away. It's some kind of wren! Maybe the marsh wren? I've never seen this bird before.

Moving on, I sit down for a few minutes. Pause. Up again. Notice 1 or 2 squirrel nests (?) in tall creek alders, and maybe a bird nest near to them, something flatter with lots of sticks in treetops. Walk a little further and pause. Wait. Minutes of stillness. A woodpecker. I had heard drumming. This little guy (or girl) downy woodpecker fed in mid-treetops, not too concerned about me. I take a good look in the binos. Then I move ahead, a good view down toward the creek to a flat with good cover for ground birds. Waited. Several minutes. Heard two unfamiliar birds companion calling. Finally got a look, not sure who? Ground feeder, hopping like a towhee, but not a towhee, a sparrow? Maybe hermit thrush? Around now, varied thrush also wanted to see what was up, so perched up higher to see me, then flew away toward the wolf tree.

While I was observing this, a western grey squirrel came along, traveling upstream in the trees. Downy woodpecker moved out of the way, then went back to feeding. Spent some time @ the wolf tree. Up hill to lower meadow. Startled more sparrows, and quail sentinel warned everyone before I emerged. I startled this covey last week during the storm on my dusk walk through the same location). I stopped and waited and hoped for a return to baseline, but a towhee dives out of a bush near me and flies away in a worry. Other birds too. On my way up the hill, another wren! 2 in one day!

Also, raven, turkey vulture, song sparrow, robin, stellar's jay, and red-tail hawk call. Deer tracks.

It's amazing how if you arrive in calmness, and settle and wait, in stillness, the forest comes back to life quickly, and amazing things happen. That was the single most amazing nature walk I've ever taken, by the sheer number of small successes, and the rewards of patience paying off.

Friday, February 13, 2015

It's Hand-Dyed, Natural-Dyed Farmstead Yarn

Yarn "cooking" in the dye vat

Since I've been away from the blog, a funny little thing has happened. I have become obsessed with fiber, yarn, and dye. I started buying local fleece, and turning it into yarn, and researching ways to transform that white stuff into lovely colors using natural and wildcrafted dye. It's turned into an actual thing! In November of last year, I officially launched Lost Coast Yarn with my own Etsy page. I'm pretty excited about it, and excited for the knitters of Humboldt County to have access to locally-grown and -dyed yarn.

Today, I was busy dyeing my first batch of my 2014 clip. This is a 75% wool, 25% alpaca sock or fingering weight yarn. Today's dye was made using black walnut hulls. My neighbors, Gail, Harold and Mimi, and Jane all gave me a collection of walnut hulls in the fall when they were harvesting their walnuts. I put the rotting brown outer shells into buckets of water, put a lid on them, and forgot about them, till yesterday.

I poured some of the fermented brew into my dye pot, and boiled for an hour or two, and then strained the dye. (I put the hulls back into the bucket to soak some more, there will be plenty more dye from them.) Then I added my washed and soaked yarn to the dye, and simmered at 170 degrees or so for about 90 minutes. The color came out a lovely coppery brown today. I was aiming for a little lighter, but hey! It's always an adventure with natural dye. I think it's quite lovely. 

 Skeins of Sock Yarn, Dyed with Black Walnut

Straw Bale Gardening

Well, it's been quite a while since I have added anything to my lovely little blog. Having a second child will do that to you! I just have not had any space to think of writing regularly. Maybe this won't have changed, but I'm excited about a new project that begs for blogging on California Homesteading.

I'm just getting started with a "Straw Bale Garden". After following one of those ubiquitous Facebook links to a page on the subject, I took about 10 minutes to decide to order the $20 book to find out how this is done. I've heard of growing things in bales before, but didn't know much about how.

Straw Bale Gardens by Joel Karsten, a Minnesota gardener (http://strawbalegardens.com/), arrived within a few days, and I quickly saw great potential. Our gardens have been in a challenging way for some years. The size had grown large, and required more physical labor to prepare than I have strength and lower back health. We also live on a pasture, and our regular vegetation is grass, lots of it, several species of which are quite invasive, and difficult to remove for spring and summer planting. Our spring planting is often thwarted by wet soils and weather, and in the summer, gophers are a huge issue.

In Straw Bale Gardens, Karsten describes how to add fertilizer and water to a regular old straw bale to transform it into a warm, moist, bacterially-active growing medium, all above the ground at a nice height for working, while also creating a little trellis that you can use to create a mini-greenhouse, warmed by your cooking bale, to protect your young plants. Another added benefit for us is that these beds can be temporary, in that at the end of the season, all that's left is composting straw. We are still deciding what shape and form our garden area right outside our door will be, so the idea that we can create this garden and then tear it down if we hate the layout, is very appealing.

So the day after getting the book, Drew was going to town with the truck to get hay for the milk cow, and we also got a few straw bales. He was even able to find organically-grown bales. I procured the necessary amendments and hardware cloth underlayment from our friendly neighborhood nursery, and I started watering and amending them yesterday. Once they're ready, in about two weeks, we'll plant peas, radishes, arugula, and lettuce.

Gardner and I also planted lots of seeds that will be ready to transplant into our next round of bales. These will be our regular spring crops that I often can't get in the ground early enough: broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, bok choi, fennel, cilantro, lettuce, etc. It's almost the new moon, too, which means it will be time to plant the tomatoes, eggplants, and peppers.

I'm so excited about our garden after an almost-complete hiatus last summer. The year of grief, after losing three friends in three months, seems to have left me now, and I am motivated again in the good things in life. I have missed eating our own home-grown produce, and am looking forward to piquant and fresh lettuce greens, and delicious fruits, grown perfectly for our tastes. Bon appetit!